Nova Scotia

Fear of looming economic blow remains 1 year after Northern Pulp closure

A boom in lumber sales during the pandemic may have softened the blow of the Northern Pulp shutdown nearly one year ago but the head of Forest Nova Scotia says it won't last.

The Pictou County pulp mill stopped operating at the end of January 2020

The Northern Pulp mill in Abercrombie Point, N.S., closed last January. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

A boom in lumber sales and pandemic relief funding has softened the blow of Northern Pulp's closure nearly one year ago, but the head of Forest Nova Scotia says the reprieve won't last.

"There is the fear of that false floor falling out from underneath us and us feeling the true impact to the sector," Jeff Bishop told CBC's Mainstreet on Wednesday. His group advocates on behalf of the forestry industry.

He said he's thankful record-high lumber prices during the pandemic have allowed sawmills like Elmsdale Lumber to stay afloat during a very uncertain year. Without that silver lining, many sawmills in the province would likely have been forced to close down, he said.

Still, Bishop said many people are struggling to figure out what the next few months and years look like now that one of the biggest players in the province's forestry sector is gone.

"Lumber, like most commodities, is very cyclical and it's up and down," he said. "This is a strange bit of up, and so we're only holding our breath to see when the down will happen. It no doubt will."

Craig Tupper, meanwhile, said not everyone in the industry has benefited from the pandemic's unexpected lumber boom.

"That really hasn't trickled down to the average landowner, and it really hasn't been meaningful for many of the contractors out there," said Tupper, a registered forester with the Athol Forestry Co-operative, which represents 250 small woodlot owners in Cumberland County. 

He said landowners, as well as many young contractors, have endured "an unusual amount of the burden of that loss of market" and COVID-19 emergency benefits haven't been enough to make up for it. 

Craig Tupper with Athol Forestry Co-operative says some young contractors left the industry after Northern Pulp shut down. (Michael Gorman/CBC)

"We've had several contractors that have downsized, some have left the industry," Tupper said. "We've seen younger people step away and stuff, and it's really hard to attract new entrants to the industry in a climate like this." 

He said without a market for low-value wood products, it's also more challenging to do the kind of ecological forestry recommended in the 2018 Lahey Report.

"Those treatments rely heavily on having a robust, low-value market, which isn't there today," he said. 

What's next for the industry?

Northern Pulp halted production in January 2020 after the provincial government refused its application to build a new treatment facility that would have pumped treated effluent into the Northumberland Strait. 

The mill was Nova Scotia's largest consumer of wood chips and other byproducts. With it gone, the province has tried to find new markets for these materials, including burning more biomass.

Tupper said he's also heartened that companies are finding new and innovative alternatives. Elmsdale Lumber is one of them. It's trying to expand its operation so it can use wood chips to create biochar.

The question that Bishop has is how long will it take for these new innovations to actually offset what's been lost.

Jeff Bishop is executive director of Forest Nova Scotia. His group advocates on behalf of the forestry industry. (CBC)

"Northern Pulp closed like shutting a door or turning off a light, but finding the new, the next and people being comfortable enough to make investment to be part of what is next, that's the difficulty," he said.

"The problem is, can we maintain enough of the interest of landowners to be part of the fibre supply in this province, to maintain enough of the contracting sector to hang on and just pay the bills in time when something new does get built and set up and ready to operate?"

Impact is still hidden, says warden

Robert Parker, warden of the Municipality of Pictou County, said nearly one year after the closure of the mill, many people in the area aren't yet ready to talk about it. 

He said "the mill is still sort of a dirty word in Pictou County for many" but there are quiet conversations happening about its future. 

"I think there's still hopes among some people that the mill will re-start, but I have to say if it restarts, the bottom line for people in Pictou County, is it has to be a much different operation, a much cleaner operation," Parker told CBC's Information Morning during an interview in December. 

Northern Pulp says it's in the process of engaging with the community as it tries to reopen, a move that's been met with scepticism by some who either feel left out of the process or don't want any part of it.

The warden said many of the people who lost work at the mill have been doing OK thanks to emergency COVID-19 benefits. Small businesses that also would have felt the loss of those paychecks are being buoyed by federal funds, he said.

"The economic effects are still there but … they've been kind of hidden by COVID, and that's going to come back," he said. "It's like any other emergency in your household or wherever, you deal with the emergency at the time but the real world comes back once the emergency's over."

With files from CBC's Mainstreet and CBC's Information Morning